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Sheltering from a business storm
From adversity comes opportunity. That’s how small business owner Simon Braunthal has seen the COVID-19 crisis, which is changing the way he and other businesses work.
Simon runs Altegra, which has sold premium custom made and branded marquees and gazebos since 2004. When the pandemic hit and Australians were told to stay at home and avoid large gatherings, sales plummeted by 75 per cent.
Outdoor crowds were Simon’s livelihood, but most markets closed, sport was postponed, schools went online, and outdoor events were cancelled. “Prior to this our business was ticking away just nicely,” Simon says. “It literally ground to a halt.”
The situation could have been disastrous. But Simon set about finding new ways to market his portable marquees and gazebos, which are known for their strength, durability, and customer service.
This had made them popular with sporting groups, stallholders and anyone needing reliable outdoor shelter. Simon is also known for going above and beyond with repairs and replacement parts.
Thinking outside the square
The challenge for Simon was finding new product ideas and markets as COVID-19 restrictions gradually eased. When schools returned, for example, he developed hand sanitiser stations that used a gazebo with a school logo to provide a recognisable location to find and use it.
With some help from the Small Business Mentoring Service (SBMS) CEO David Gregory, Simon brainstormed more clever ways to attract new sales and to expand Altegra’s digital footprint.
- Outdoor kitchen/serving stations. With numbers restricted at wineries and restaurants, branded gazebos could become outdoor stations for items such as crepes and cheese platters. They would also help to regulate numbers and social distancing.
- Fairs and markets. As markets, fairs and outdoor events return, event organisers and councils might like gazebo packages with creative customised messages and photos.
- Festivals. Gazebos can be matched to a festival theme or stallholder, such as Ferrari red marquees at the Italian Festival in Lygon St around Grand Prix time.
- Interior branding. Few if any gazebos feature branding on the inside, yet they are ripe for creating a theme or telling a story on the inside.
- Tourism. A group of businesses could use gazebos or marquees for consistent branding across joint ventures such as farm gate or tourism trails. A printed marquee in each spot would look great and have practical uses such as information centres.
Making a fresh start
Simon is also rethinking how he operates. He had preferred selling face to face and customers liked to visit his Knoxfield showroom. “People like to feel them and touch them,” he says of his products.
Post-COVID-19, however, more customers may prefer to shop online. With the guidance of the Mentors from SBMS, exploring the digital opportunities that best aligned to my business was extremely valuable. “It’s almost like starting again,” Simon says. “We’re having to change our thinking. We’re having to invest more on our website and Youtube.
“It’s exciting in some ways. It’s a bit of a reset not just for Australia but for the whole world.”
Simon had three employees and a contractor but had to reduce the contractor’s hours and one of his employees left to access the JobKeeper payment. The remaining staff accessed JobKeeper.
Despite a long period of uncertainty, Simon is confident his business will survive if it adapts. “We’ll survive because we’ve been around for a while,” he says. “We’ve got a strong name.”
Adapting to a new normal
SBMS has also adapted to the new normal by moving mentoring online via Zoom and establishing a COVID-19 support page on its website (www.sbms.org.au). It deals with issues such as accessing support and how to survive in these challenging times.
“SBMS has always delivered mentoring face to face, but you have to adapt to circumstances, and we have done so quickly, successfully and seamlessly,” David says. Naturally, if safe and where appropriate, mentoring can be arranged both face to face and online according to the individual business’s needs.
With Simon, David looked at his current market to see what avenues remained unexplored, what would enhance or differentiate his offer, how he could target bulk sales and what he could offer others looking to meet new challenges.
“The road ahead is not the same road,” David explains. “While so many businesses have been impacted, the response should be how can they redefine their business, their direction, their products/services and align them to the new road.
“There are many opportunities to explore and Altegra is a business that is preparing itself for the new road by taking the time to listen and explore what could be, rather than accept what is.”
The Small Business Mentoring Service (SBMS) is a non-government, non-profit organisation of volunteer expert mentors who give their time and experience to help small business. It is supported by Small Business Victoria. Website: www.sbms.org.au
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